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Hi all,

I'd be very grateful for any comment on the first chapter below of my crime thriller.

As an aside, I'd be happy to critique the first 5k/three chapters of your crime/thriller book (just one mss, that is) if you'd do the same for me.

I'm a newish member - joined a couple of weeks ago.

Looking forward to knowing you all.

Jeff

Chapter 1

Gunfire crackles from automatic weapons, a sporadic drrr-drrr-drrr, the muzzles flaring sparks into the darkness. The bullets spitting out in a clatter that echoes around the valley. Death so close you can touch it. It makes me feel alive and giddy. My skin tingles.

Night had fallen over Caracas, bathing its concrete wares in blackness. A balmy, lilting wind drifts south from the coast. It glides over the El Avila mountains that hem in Venezuela’s capital to the north, then blows over a mishmash of a city. Villas with pools in gated communities, skyscrapers downtown, and all encircled by barrios — slums — that crawl around the sloping hills to the south and east.

And it was in one of these beat-up ghettos where the shooting show was in full swing. Sunday evening, barely 7pm. But it was the same most weekend nights. Rival drug gangs tanked up on coke or booze. Waging war. Settling scores, eating into new turf. Or maybe just bored and flexing muscle.

I sat sipping Santa Teresa rum, a candle on the table flickering behind a lamp the shape of a goblet. I pointed out to the gun fight. “The boys kicked off early tonight,” I said. 

Jonny, a stringer with the LA Observer, puffed on a Cuban cigar as thick as a banana. It made his narrow face look even smaller. “It’s a joke. More are killed here in a year than in that war in Iraq.” He called it eye-er-ak.

“I told my desk that once, when I had a job,” I said, “and you know what my editor says? ‘Find something interesting to write about.’ So I pitched a story about the government rationing toilet paper and he had a hard on.”

Jonny laughed, spluttering out smoke. 

Ryan, of the Financial Record in London, threw his hands up. “Wait a minute, Alex, at least your bloody desk in New York had heard of Venezuela. I phoned an editor with a pitch once and he said Vene-where?”

I chuckled. Jonny clapped. 

Hector, an investigative journalist with the local current affairs magazine La Semana, grinned. “I’ve put my life on the line snooping into this fuck of a dictatorship and you clowns moan about boozing your time away.”

We all laughed, lounging in our usual spot in bar Mirador, housed on the rooftop terrace in Hotel Castellena, perched up on the 19th floor. High enough to hear the mini war from a distance, but far enough from the danger. Only the odd bullet strayed here at the end of its path, dropping like a coin with a ping. Grabbed by a gleeful expat looking for a souveneir.

It was busy enough in Mirador in this hangout for rich Venezuelans and westerners. The crowd was the usual. Diplomats, expat businessmen, a few save the world types, even the odd spook and mercenary. Our Gringo numbers these days dwindling, though. The only pool growing, or stable, was the journalists. The currency of bad news in good supply. People dying, shot up or starved. Protests. A socialista government slipping out of popularity but digging in its heels. A whiff of a coup. Misery to most, but to a reporter it was gold.

Two guys strutted across the terrace. Early 30s, buttoned-up Polo shirts, all swagger. Throwing their eyes around to see were any girls checking them out. 

There wasn’t. 

They wandered past the bar the shape of a horseshoe. Next to it, a DJ, woolly hat and aviator shades, playing house music discs. Two Gringa girls danced badly, all swinging arms and legs. No rhythm.

The two dudes nodded to an empty table to my left and pulled up chairs. Chatted in a Texan twang. One of the duo, with puffed-up arms, clicked his fingers at a passing waiter. “Hey, chico.”

I spun around, got into his face. “Why don’t you show a bit of respect,” I said. “The staff have it hard enough in life without you shitting on them.”

Texan Twang stared me down. After a beat, he said, “Really?” Dripping with sarcasm. Throwing eyes to his buddy — his adam’s apple bobbing.

I kept my gaze on muscle man, my hands tightening into fists. After a long pause, I replied. “Really.”

He flexed his biceps but I smelled fear. His amigo cleared his throat and ordered two neat whiskeys. The waiter, in his uniform of black t-shirt and slacks, nodded and backpedalled, giving me a look as if to say, ‘don’t bother with this guy’.

Fingers gripped my shoulders and I turned around. Jonny, easing me back around to my table. “Take it easy, big guy,” he said. “We don’t want trouble on our own doorstep.” 

I shrugged. “Just blowing off steam.” Ryan shook his head. Jonny sucked on his cigar. Hector chuckled, his belly jiggling.

I glugged another mouthful of rum. In the background, Texan Twang sniggered, then babbled on about derivatives and capital gains. Speaking loud to his buddy about how he was going to tap into a failed country of “spicks” and make his millions. 

I put them down for a couple of wannabe businessmen. Eyeing up any opportunities in a dying economy. I tried to push the guy’s big talk aside but it grated.

The chat at my table turned to another embassy quitting town. This time, the Canadians.

“Awful shame,” I said. “They throw the best party in town. Barbeque and free booze.” 

Every Wednesday. It was the highlight of our midweek. It gave me a lift. Helped along by the coke. I dipped in and out of the toilets for a snort with the first secretary, an old guy, bald as a coot. He was always flush.

Jonny flicked ash from his Monte Cristo over the balcony. “Damn shame.”

Ryan pushed his round glasses up his nose. “Exactly. What do we do on a Wednesday night now?”

I shrugged. “There’s always El Mani club in Sabana Grande. But it’s getting rough down there, gangbangers turning it into the wild west.”

Out of the corner of my eye I watched Texan Twang pull a fistful of notes out of his wallet and flap the bills. “You could make a fire with this currency,” he said, laughing. “Bolivares fuertes, the paper’s worth more.”

I swivelled around. “You still being an asshole?”

“You ain’t seen nothin’ — watch this.” He grabbed a lighter on his table and lit the wad. Flames licked the air, the paper curling. A waiter stopped in his tracks, his jaw hung slack. Another gasped. Texan Twang then threw the notes in the air and they drifted over the balcony, embers floating like fireflies. He sat laughing, his big stupid mouth wide open.

“You muthafucker, dissing these people,” I shouted.

I jumped out of my chair, dug my fingers into his throat and hauled him to his feet. He sucked in air, his eyes bulging. I shoved him back and threw a volley of punches into his face, short and sharp, the kind that both shocked and hurt with each pound of fist. One blow hit his nose, bone connecting with cartilage in a spray of red. 

He staggered, then stumbled and collapsed onto a table, glasses smashing. A girl screamed and ran. Another, doing her lipstick, dropped her compact mirror in a tumbler. 

I dropped my hands to my side, my nostrils flaring. I watched Texan Twang crawling away. His buddy ran over, tugging at his arm to get him up.

The manager, Diego, marched onto the terrace with a doorman. Diego massaged his goatee, trimmed so tight you strike a match off the stubble, and shook his head at the sight of me being at the centre of the commotion.

I shrugged. “What?” I said, now feeling dumb.

The waiter filled in the pair about Texan Twang sparking up money into a bonfire. Diego barked orders at the doorman who scooped the KO’d clown off the floor. He and the dude’s buddy hauled him out, Texan Twang’s arms slung over each of their shoulders, his feet dragging.

I sat down, wiped my bloody hands on a napkin and folded it neatly on my lap. Ryan, Jonny and Hector, all now back to smoking and drinking like nothing happened. 

“Guy had it coming,” Hector said.

Diego stormed over, wagging a stubby finger. “You did right at that piece of shit, Alex, but you gotta leave. The owner, you might be his best customer, but he don’t like trouble.” 

I stood, shrugging. “Got it.” I fished out enough notes from my wallet to cover my tab, shoved the cash under an ashtray. “We’ll do it all again next time, boys.” 

Ryan winked. “Make it next time as in an hour. Club Mani. Get down there. We’ll nurse a few night caps.”

“Maybe,” I said. I gave him, Jonny and Hector a thumbs up and shuffled off, eyes all around on me. I scuttled down a metal staircase to the lower terrace, my legs wobbly from the booze. 

I stood at a balcony for a breather. A starry sky pulsed. A light breeze stirred, my hair ruffling. 

My phone rang and I pulled it out of my pocket. I brushed off loose tobacco from the screen. I showed a +353 number – a call from Ireland. 

Lorraine, my sister.

I hadn’t spoken to her in months. I slapped myself around the face to sharpen up and stabbed the answer button, ready for a ticking off for going AWOL.

“Look, Lorraine, I’m sorry, I eh,” I stuttered. “I haven’t been in touch lately but—” 

“Forget about that,” she shouted. “Your brother. You know, the one you never see.”

I snorted. “For good reason.”

“He’s … he’s.” Her voice breaking up, then a spasm of coughs.

“What the hell is going on?” I said.

Lorraine cleared her throat, making raspy sounds. “Mark — he’s dead.” Groans and soft cries.

I pushed the phone tight to my ear, so hard it pinched. “What are you talking about?”

“He went to Caracas with that Venezuelan tramp Carmen and married her. And she killed him there for his money. I bleedin’ know she did.” 

“Just pull it back a bit,” I said. “How did he die? And where in Caracas?” I paced in a circle.

“I … I don’t know.” Her words trailed off into sobs.

I stopped shuffling. “Lorraine, talk to me,” I said.

After a pause, she said, “You’re over there, Alex. Just get Mark home. And find the truth.”

ENDS

Comments
  • I like your writing style, Jeff. That stripped back feel is right up my street. You turn some really great phrases. You've also managed to weave in background information around action to help keep it interesting. So a lot of nice writing, but I’m not entirely convinced by the set up.

    The first paragraph I thought was fabulous. (Although in a different tense to the rest of it). I was looking forward to seeing where this went. You then jumped in the next paragraph to a description of the area, which someone in the middle of a gunfight wouldn’t do. But as it turns out, the character is actually sitting in a bar on the 19th floor of a hotel. You’ve given me an entirely false promise of what to expect in that opening. I feel you’re using it as a means to set up excitement, then yank the rug out from under me, because the danger doesn’t exist. Death certainly isn’t so close you could touch it.

    The next thing to strike me was your description of the character’s companions.  When you meet your friends, you don’t look at them and think, there’s Greg the self-employed surveyor, and there’s Andrew who works for PWC chartered accountants…  You already know these things and wouldn’t think them. Because that is what you’ve done with these newspaper guys, so the reader knows they’re all hack, it feels unnatural. You need to come up with a more subtle way of getting this information in.

    I also wonder if we’re going to see these people again. If Alex is about to head off in search of his brother’s killers, and these people aren’t relevant to the story, this scene feels unnecessary. 

    Similarly the altercation. It’s action, but why is it in there? How is it advancing the story? Are you simply using this scene to show us Alex’s background and character? You want us to know he’s got great social morals even if he is a bit of a drunk. 

    I also found the jump from jaded, boozing hack to loose cannon a bit abrupt. Maybe you need to have this hinted at in the preceding conversation.

    I thought the attack itself was well written, and there was a definite ouch when the nose smashes, but from Alex’s point of view, I never felt he was in any danger and therefore wasn’t concerned for him. Without the peril, you don’t get the tension.

    I think the above has stopped me fully engaging with the character. Because of that, when we get to the reveal at the end, I’m not sure how much I care about the fact his brother has been killed. What you want is for me to be investing in Alex, so I think ‘Oh, know…’ when I hear about his brother, and want to read more.

    Something else I noticed about this was the number of paragraphs that started with ‘I’. There are more and more the further you get into the piece. It can start to feel a bit like a list of instructions. I shrugged/I glugged/I put… It would be good if you could lose that.

    I think there are lots of good thing about your writing, but this scene isn’t convincing me. Are you starting your story in the right place? Or have you contrived this scene to be a kind of engaging, sneaky information dump?

    That’s my reaction with my super critical critting head on. But they are just my opinions and thoughts, and others may love it. Get a consensus.

    But good luck with it. I do like the writing and I think it has great potential.

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    • Kate,

      That's some fabulous and detailed critique. And you highlighted some issues with the chapter that I saw as potential faults - so if you do also, ie with fresh eyes on it, then it means they need to be fixed.

      "The first paragraph I thought was fabulous. (Although in a different tense to the rest of it). I was looking forward to seeing where this went. You then jumped in the next paragraph to a description of the area, which someone in the middle of a gunfight wouldn’t do. But as it turns out, the character is actually sitting in a bar on the 19th floor of a hotel. You’ve given me an entirely false promise of what to expect in that opening. I feel you’re using it as a means to set up excitement, then yank the rug out from under me, because the danger doesn’t exist. Death certainly isn’t so close you could touch it."

      Good point re the false promise. I hadn't really seen it like that.

      "The next thing to strike me was your description of the character’s companions.  When you meet your friends, you don’t look at them and think, there’s Greg the self-employed surveyor, and there’s Andrew who works for PWC chartered accountants…  You already know these things and wouldn’t think them. Because that is what you’ve done with these newspaper guys, so the reader knows they’re all hack, it feels unnatural. You need to come up with a more subtle way of getting this information in."

      Good point. I'll rework it so it's more natural.

      "Similarly the altercation. It’s action, but why is it in there? How is it advancing the story? Are you simply using this scene to show us Alex’s background and character? You want us to know he’s got great social morals even if he is a bit of a drunk."

      Yes, it might be too Save the Cat.

      "I also found the jump from jaded, boozing hack to loose cannon a bit abrupt. Maybe you need to have this hinted at in the preceding conversation."

      Alex already squared up to the guy early on before the fight - but point taken.

      "I thought the attack itself was well written, and there was a definite ouch when the nose smashes."

      Thanks.

      "but from Alex’s point of view, I never felt he was in any danger and therefore wasn’t concerned for him. Without the peril, you don’t get the tension."

      Very good ponit. I'll rework it so he's in peril. It seems he has it too easy in the fight. I might get the two guys to fight him, maybe, and have Alex get a few knocks in the punch-up.

      "I think the above has stopped me fully engaging with the character. Because of that, when we get to the reveal at the end, I’m not sure how much I care about the fact his brother has been killed. What you want is for me to be investing in Alex, so I think ‘Oh, know…’ when I hear about his brother, and want to read more."

      Right, I need the reader invested him more.

      "Something else I noticed about this was the number of paragraphs that started with ‘I’. There are more and more the further you get into the piece. It can start to feel a bit like a list of instructions. I shrugged/I glugged/I put… It would be good if you could lose that."

      Will do - and easily fixed.

      "Are you starting your story in the right place? Or have you contrived this scene to be a kind of engaging, sneaky information dump?"

      I have been struggling with how to open the story, and I'll go back to the drawing board. I think the scene is strong, but could do it later in the story.

      "But good luck with it. I do like the writing and I think it has great potential."

      Much appreciated. And your detailed feedback is fantastic.

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      • Glad it was helpful and thanks for responding - don't always get to find out if feedback has been useful.

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      • Hello Jeff

        Straight to it, then . . .

        LIKES:

        Love the Caracas setting . . . Love the extended description of the distant gun battle (though would have preferred if it had been more distant) . . . Love the hard-boiled, no nonsense, quick-fisted journo . . . Love the get-together venue and evocation of ex-pat hedonism . . . Love the vehicle of his altercation giving voice to how he viewed the world and his physicality . . . Loved the lengthy prelude to the call from his sister (for me, a slow burn is sometimes very appealing)

        NOT SO SURE(S) - Sorry, I'll be jumping about a bit here as I'm listing them in order of significance:

        Proximity (of the fire-fight, as stated)

        Round-table introductions (would have preferred: I was sat with three exiled hacks . . . Johny Soandso, Ryan Thingy and Hector Whatshisname) then just first names for the ongoing conversation. Even if we are going to meet them again, I could happily wait for more details about who they work for and why they are there. And if not: not sure I care who they work for😕 

        Dialogue double tags (I shrugged. “What?” I said, now feeling dumb.) I didn't need - I said, now feeling dumb (it slowed the pace for me)

        Habits (Would have preferred if your man was struggling with his coke habit, rather than indulging in the here and now - again it slowed things down for me, because I registered it a gratuitous from the point of view of getting to his sister's call. Again, I would have preferred his darker traits to be hinted at and expanded/fully revealed on as we go with him.

        His name (appreciate that I needed to discover his name through someone using it, just would have liked that to be the first person that speaks - but it's only a small gripe)

        DIDN'T LIKE(S)

        Dialogue (worst first - on the phone, with his sister - just because it's the pivotal event in the chapter for me - really wanted it to be a more dramatic/shocking/heart-stopping moment for Alex - again, I would have been happy to learn about any brotherly antipathies later) Hope you don't mind me offering the following:

        __________________

        Lorraine . . . My sister.

        We hadn't spoken in months. Not her fault. I was the one who had gone AWOL. I tried to shake the booze from my head . . .

        . . . then stabbed answer. 

        “Look, Lorraine . . . I’m sorry . . . I, eh . . . I known I haven’t been in touch lately, but . . .” 

        “Never mind that . . . ” She was almost screaming. “It's your brother . . ."

        Her voice cracked. I could hear her sobbing.

        “He’s …"

        “Lorraine . . . What's going on?” I said.

        She tried to clear her throat, but all she managed was more rasping sobs.

        "Lorraine . . ."

        “. . . Alex, he’s dead.”

        I pushed the phone hard to my ear. “What the hell are you saying?”

        “He went to Caracas . . . with that whore, Carmen . . . He married her, Alex. And now he's dead. She probably killed him . . . For his damn money . . . I fucking know she did . . .” 

        “Wait . . . Just pull it back a bit."

        My head was spinning. I couldn't have heard what I'd just heard. It just wasn't possible. I needed to get her to slow down. But I had too many questions crashing through my head.

        "How did he die? . . . When . . . Where in Caracas?”

        I knew I was shouting . . . I'd began pacing a circle.

        “I … I don’t know,” she said.

        “Lorraine . . . this doesn't make and sense.”

        After a pause, she said, “I know, Alex . . . But you’re over there . . . Please, just get him home . . . And find the truth.”

        _______________________

        His master's voice (I can really see Alex: A tough guy who happens to be a journalist. Strong-willed. Quick with his fists. Hopefully flawed and a little vulnerable. Loyal. Determined. Hard to knock down. But I want him to be educated. Smarter than your average bear. And for that he needs to speak well. Be able to use his words as a weapon when situation demands. So, I really didn't like:

        . . . without you shitting on them.”

        . . . muthafucker, dissing these people,”

        I think it detracts. I also felt disappointed in him (honestly . . . so I realised I was fully engaged/invested). I just feel he needs a more consistent/authoritative voice than he currently has . . . one that matches his physical presence; if you get where I'm coming from?

        Listen . . . you've got one heck of an opening here, Jeff.

        Would love to see where it goes . . .

        Crack on, Sir . . .

        ATB - Steve (Muzyka-Robinson)

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        • Steven, that's one great and detailed critique. And thanks for returning the favour!

          "LIKES:

          Love the Caracas setting . . . Love the extended description of the distant gun battle (though would have preferred if it had been more distant) . . . Love the hard-boiled, no nonsense, quick-fisted journo . . . Love the get-together venue and evocation of ex-pat hedonism . . . Love the vehicle of his altercation giving voice to how he viewed the world and his physicality . . . Loved the lengthy prelude to the call from his sister (for me, a slow burn is sometimes very appealing)"

          Glad what you liked about it.

          "Round-table introductions (would have preferred: I was sat with three exiled hacks . . . Johny Soandso, Ryan Thingy and Hector Whatshisname) then just first names for the ongoing conversation. Even if we are going to meet them again, I could happily wait for more details about who they work for and why they are there. And if not: not sure I care who they work for😕 "

          Yeah, you're right -- and Kate rightly pointed out the same thing.

          "Habits (Would have preferred if your man was struggling with his coke habit, rather than indulging in the here and now - again it slowed things down for me, because I registered it a gratuitous from the point of view of getting to his sister's call. Again, I would have preferred his darker traits to be hinted at and expanded/fully revealed on as we go with him."

          Fair point.

          "DIDN'T LIKE(S)

          Dialogue (worst first - on the phone, with his sister - just because it's the pivotal event in the chapter for me - really wanted it to be a more dramatic/shocking/heart-stopping moment for Alex - again, I would have been happy to learn about any brotherly antipathies later):"

          That's an excellent point. And great suggestion re the dialogue. I will absolutely rewrite the conversation with the sister so my 'hero' is more knocked back/in grief/shock. I need to generate reader empathy with him.

          "Listen . . . you've got one heck of an opening here, Jeff.

          Would love to see where it goes . . .

          Crack on, Sir . . ."

          Much appreciated. I actually have a draft in the bag and have now gone back to the beginning to work on the first three chapters. And with all the boxes to tick that authors are supposed to do with the first three chapters, it ain't easy.

          But that is writing. And if it was easy I would lose interest.

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          • Hi Jeff... 

            You are more than welcome. 

            I would also like to re-emphasise how intrigued I am if you are going to take us down a political or purely criminal road; or (and here I'm licking my lips) mix of the two.

            Best wishes

            Steve M-R

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